Saturday nights in downtown Nashville typically invite bachelorette parties, post-game celebrations, and public intoxication – not meek and mild pilgrims. Marching towards the Country Music Association Theater, a band of concert-goers prepare themselves for an evening of revival and rejuvenation. The eager fans, all donning t-shirts of their favorite artist, converse with others in line as they enter the venue. Some guests exchange names with nearby attendees; others swap usernames, often finding out that they have actually already met each other. Many of these fans have debated musical preferences, leaked tour schedules, and waited together in anticipation of upcoming albums all on online forums. Tonight, however, they have no new music to share or show dates to anticipate. Instead, the loyal listeners have all gathered in in-person at the concert hall to celebrate the lasting legacy of their most beloved artist, John Prine.
Singer-songwriter John Prine delivered an unfamiliar breed of music when he found fame in the early 1970s. A student of folk, country, and rock-and-roll, his music blended the freewheeling prose of Bob Dylan with the simple tangibility of Hank Williams. Leaving behind his job as Chicago mailman, Prine developed a devout following among fans of all backgrounds. Whether one was rich or poor, Ivy-League-educated or a high school dropout, his work granted all listeners fatherly life lessons and blissful escapism. As musical fads came and went, the “Mark Twain of American music” stayed the same; regardless of general audiences moving away, Prine still delighted in playing his pieces to those who stuck around. He made a home in Nashville in 1980, where for four decades, he provided an outreached hand for musical renegades rebelling against the “country music machine.” His warmness and humility cemented him into the Music City landscape as a mentor-figure for devoted singer-songwriters. Among many in the now-defined Americana scene, he remains the quintessential, “your artist’s favorite artist.”
Back in the intimate theater, Reeda Busresh is pointing out many in attendance who knew Prine. “Now him over there, he went fishing with John a few times. And him, he played in John’s band every once in a while,” she notes while distinguishing individuals out of the sea of fans. Reeda and her husband Terry founded the fan forum “John Prine Shrine” over a quarter-of-a-century ago. The website has gone a few years without a facelift, but it bears all the charm of a mom-and-pop shop. There is a dedicated section for Prine’s setlists, Prine “name-drops” in pop culture, and even Prine-inspired tattoos. A banner on the top of the website still announces, “John Prine died in the evening of April 7, 2020 at Vanderbilt Medical Center” as if the online community needed to be convinced daily.
As everyone begins to settle into their seats, Reeda recounts the first time she heard Prine as a fifteen-year-old who had been sent to live with her sister in the isolated Ozark Mountains. Throughout her story, she conveys her sincerest thanks for the kinship she felt with Prine upon her first aural encounter with his music. Their kinship persisted, and for the past four-and-a-half decades, she and Terry have been caravanning to as many John Prine shows as possible. They seem to have no regrets about their investment – there isn’t anything they would trade for their mnemonic Prine souvenirs.
Today, the couple has driven all the way from Davenport, Ohio to celebrate Prine’s lasting legacy during the week-long tribute festival reminiscently entitled “You Got Gold.” Nashville musical and commercial institutions have opened their doors for what is, essentially, a Sturgis Rally for Prine enthusiasts. Brown’s Diner off 21st Avenue has scheduled an afternoon open-mic event for fans to play Prine tunes. The Belcourt Theatre has arranged a showing and Q&A on a recent documentary on the record label Prine founded, Oh Boy Records. Even the White Castle on Broadway, a favorite of the songwriter’s, has just this morning dedicated a dining booth to him and enshrined him in the “Craver’s Hall of Fame.” These daytime events prepare fans’ hearts and minds for the music at night. For six evenings, artists of all musical backgrounds are joining audiences in performing Prine-favorites and deep-cuts. Now, as the lights dim for tonight’s performance, all remaining chatting disappears and the silent sound of reverence echoes throughout the theater.
The varied performers present to honor Prine are among Nashville’s most acclaimed, but no one this evening is a rockstar. One by one, each of the seasoned artists steps up to the microphone wearing a peculiar blend of nervousness, awe, and laughter on their face. Their first words are almost inevitably, “I know I can’t do this song justice.” With admiration and respect in their hearts, they simply want to present their meager tribute to Prine’s overwhelming legacy. After they give their concessions, the artists’ provide an explanation on why they chose each song. Country legend Mary Chapin Carpenter delivered a blanket defense for all of Prine’s work, “He was the Hemingway of music. No word is wasted … what a rare thing.”
Once the performers on stage gather their bearings and begin their cover performance, the audience becomes mesmerized with Prine’s poetry. Many attendees sing along to every word of each deep-cut and greatest hit performed. A sizable amount of people appear burrowed in reflection: squinted eyes and tightened faces reveal their internal processes. Thanks to Prine’s work as a careful cobbler, his fans have no trouble slipping into the shoes of his characters. In perhaps Prine’s most famous example of utilizing empathy, “Hello In There” places the listener into the wallpaper-laden apartment of two senior citizens whose lives have slowed to a crawl. His depiction of an aging couple left behind by the times, their family, and their own bodies awakens the audience to the possibility that this could happen to their own loved ones – or maybe worse, someone they have forgotten. Famously after hearing the song, critic Roger Ebert could not fathom how Prine did not collapse under the weight of his tender mind, “… how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday?” By the end of the third performer’s set, Reeda appears to understand Ebert’s point; she has already made great use of her handkerchief and shared it with others in her row. No doubt, the tears signal the audience’s collective gratitude for the compassionate and nuanced perspective which Prine always conveyed.
On the other side of town, a ten-foot tall mural of Prine plastered on the side of Grimey’s record shop watches over the musical landscape of Nashville like T.J. Eckleberg. Like Prine himself, the upscaled depiction of the artist reminds other musicians facing off against record company executives to “stay independent.” But back at tonight’s proceedings, no fan or artist would ever want to claim independence from Prine’s body of work. Though some present at the concert may have never met Prine in person, all attest to the life-changing friendship he provided to everyone through his insightful and comforting music. These admirers, through Prine’s contemplative music, rally around the sacred truth that “… the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel” (Proverbs 27:9 ESV). Their thankfulness for his wisdom makes what could have been a night of lament into an evening of celebration, an event which—even through the tears—revels in retelling the rich songs of John Prine. Every cross-country drive, reunited friendship, and White Castle slider consumed in the artist’s honor serves as a testament to the enduring power of beautiful compositions and sincere personal connections. Though this week of festivities will soon draw to an end, it is clear: Prine, his music, and his people are not going anywhere anytime soon.
As the night’s events begin to wind down, legendary folk artist Ramblin’ Jack Elliott emerges from behind a velvet vail walking alongside John’s widow Fiona Prine. At ninety-one-years-old Elliott has seen plenty of faces come and go, but he still seems smitten by the kindred spirit of John Prine. Fiona assists him with situating his microphone as he settles onto a stool. As the stage is being prepared, Fiona stalls for time by asking the fragile folk hero, “What did John teach you?” A twinkle comes into his eyes, and he shoots upright. Without hesitation, he confesses to the audience of Prine’s family, friends, and fans, “He taught me how to smile.”
1. Ebert, Roger. “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.” Chicago Sun-Times. 09 October 1970. https://www.rogerebert.com/features/john-prine-american-legend.